How to Plant, Cultivate, and Care for Tulips

Updated March 24, 2022
colorful tulips in garden

The tulip is among the world's most popular flowers. Native to Turkey, these bulbs have been cultivated for thousands of years. The flowers reached their height of popularity in Holland in the 1630s, when enthusiasm for new varieties triggered a speculative frenzy known as tulipomania. Even if they don't create quite that level of adoration now, they're still a beloved spring flower for many gardeners.

Growing Tulip Bulbs

Tulips are one of the easiest bulbs to grow. These spring-blooming bulbs, like those of daffodils and hyacinths, are planted in the fall. Most bloom well for one or two years, so you will probably want to dig up the bulbs and plant new ones after two years. However, some tulips perennialize and do well for several years. Most types are pest and disease resistant.

Tulips are hardy in Zones 3 to 7. Since they need a period of winter cold to bloom, they thrive in cold climates. In warmer areas, you may need to choose specific varieties or plant pre-chilled bulbs and treat them as annuals. However, with care, you can also plant tulips in spring.

A word of warning: tulips are mildly toxic to humans, and even more toxic to pets.

Buying Tulip Bulbs

tulip bulbs in hands of gardener

Choose high-quality bulbs from a reputable source. The larger the bulb, the bigger and better the flower you'll get. Tulips come in many colors, shapes, and sizes. Different varieties bloom at different times. By mixing varieties, you can have flowers blooming in your garden for many weeks.

Planting Tulips

dig hole to plant tulip bulb in garden

Tulips thrive in full sun. They last longest if bulbs are properly planted in the first place. Cultivate the soil to a depth of one foot and work in some compost, if necessary. Good drainage is essential. Set the bulbs pointed-end-up about four to six inches deep, though the exact depth for planting tulips will depend on the size of the bulb. A good rule of thumb is to plant the bulb at three times the height of the bulb. So, if the bulb is two inches tall, plant it six inches deep.

After planting, water to stimulate root growth. In cold-winter areas, the planting area can be mulched, once the soil is frozen, for extra protection.

Watering and Fertilizing Tulips

Tulips only need to be watered during drought-like periods. They should be fertilized twice per year:

  • Fertilize with bulb fertilizer or bonemeal according to the package instructions in spring when new foliage emerges.
  • Fertilize again in fall.

Pruning Tulips After Flowering

When your tulips are finished blooming, remove the flower heads but let the plant die back before removing any leaves. The leaves will eventually turn yellow and start shriveling up. At this point, it's fine to remove them.

This allows the plant to make food to produce next year's flower.

Tips for Getting Tulips to Come Back Every Year

When you think of spring-flowering bulbs, such as daffodils and hyacinths, you're used to the idea of them coming back and blooming year after year. Tulips can be a little disappointing in that way, since many hybrids will only bloom for a year, maybe two. However, if you want tulips that will come back reliably every year, there are a few things you can do.

  • Choose the right type. Look for tulips that are labeled as being "good for naturalizing" or "good for perennializing." Two popular types are the 'Emperor' and 'Triumph' tulips.
  • Be sure to plant in a spot with well-draining soil. It should also be a spot that gets full sun.
  • Leave the foliage. It can look a little unsightly when it starts yellowing, but it's important to leave it so the bulb can store energy for next year.
  • Fertilize. A spring and fall fertilizing will help ensure that the bulb is strong enough to support blooms every year.

While all of these tips are important, it all starts with selecting the best variety. As mentioned above, look for species or botanical tulips that are good for naturalizing. Not only will they return year after year, but they'll produce tulip bulblets as well, for additional blooms later on.

Landscaping With Tulips and Tulip Companions

tulips planted along garden fence

There are a few tips you can follow to help your spring garden look its best. By following them, you can get that lush, colorful look every gardener dreams of, and get an extended period of bloom as well.

  • Tulips look best planted just a few inches apart, in informal groups of at least five.
  • Choose a single variety or plant varieties in contrasting or complementary colors next to each other.
  • Choose varieties with different flowering times to extend the bloom season.
  • Add contrast to your plantings with other spring-flowering bulbs such as muscari, scilla, and fritillaria.
  • Early flowering perennials such as bleeding heart, columbine, and lungwort also match up well with tulip flowers.
  • As the foliage dies back in late spring or early summer, it can be quite unattractive. You can hide the dying foliage or bare spots in the garden by interplanting with other perennials. Some good companions include Lady's Mantle, Cranesbill, Daylily, Catmint, Coneflowers, Spiderwort, and ornamental grasses.

Types of Tulips

There are hundreds of tulip varieties. Which ones you choose will depend on where you live, where you're planting, and the desired effect, as well as which colors of tulips you prefer. Two common ways to group them are by bloom time and flower height. By taking both of these variables into account, you can create an interesting display with a long bloom season. Some examples of the types are listed below.

Early Tulip Varieties

Kaufmanniana early blooming tulips
  • Kaufmanniana: These are dependable perennials that grow just four to 12 inches tall. The blooms have a starry, waterlily-like shape when open. Kaufmanniana cultivars often have striped or mottled leaves.
  • Fosteriana: Also called the Emperor tulip, Fosteriana have large, majestic blooms on 10- to 20-inch stems. Well-known cultivars include the boldly colored 'Golden Emperor,' 'Red Emperor,' and 'Orange Emperor.'
  • Single Early: This is the oldest group in cultivation. Varieties feature single, cup-shaped blooms on 10- to 18-inch-tall plants. Many Single Early tulips are fragrant and good for forcing. Popular cultivars include 'Beauty Queen,' with fragrant flowers in a blend of pink, salmon, and apricot; 'Purple Prince,' and 'Christmas Marvel.'
  • Species Tulip: There are many different varieties of these early bloomers. Most are four to 10 inches high and ideal for rock gardens or other small gardens.

Mid-season Tulip Varieties

fringed tulip
  • Triumph: These varieties have traditional-shaped flowers and grow up to 26 inches tall. Many have been developed for cutting and forcing. Triumph are not long-lived and are often treated as annuals. 'Apricot Beauty' has fragrant, apricot blooms; 'Atila,; which is violet-purple; and 'Calgary' is a beautiful white flower.
  • Darwin Hybrids: This large, classic flower is the tallest and among the best for perennializing. They are outstanding cut flowers and excellent for forcing. Cultivars include the popular, red-flowering 'Apledoorn'; 'Queen of the Night,' which has nearly black blooms; and the stunning 'Burning Heart,' which has creamy flowers flamed in red and yellow.
  • Fringed: These mid- to late-blooming cultivars bear cup-shaped flowers with fringed edges. Heights vary. Cultivars include 'Blue Heron,' with violet blooms; 'Hamilton,' with golden flowers; and 'Burgundy Lace,' which performs well as a perennial.

Late Tulip Varieties

angélique double tulip
  • Double Late: These are often called Peony tulip, because they have so many petals. The flowers bloom late and are very long-lasting. Most Double Late are about 16 inches tall. 'Angelique' has pale pink blooms blushed with darker pink. 'Carnaval de Nice' features a striking contrast of white and crimson. 'Lilac Perfection' resembles a lavender rose.
  • Lily-Flowered: These blooms have a unique, reflexed shape resembling a lily. Most grow 14 to 24 inches tall. Cultivars include 'West Point,' which is a brilliant yellow; 'Aladdin,' red with yellow edges, and 'White Triumphator.'
  • Parrot: Ruffled, curly petals in striking color combinations give Parrot tulips a dramatic look. Heights range from 12 to 28 inches, and bloom times vary from mid- to late-spring. Striking varieties include 'Black Parrot,' with purple-black petals; 'Orange Favorite'; and 'Texas Flame,' which blooms yellow and red.

Incredible Blooms, All Spring Long

With so many tulip colors, types, forms, and sizes available, you can have a lush, colorful garden all spring long. Shorter varieties of tulips also grow well in containers, so you can have that gorgeous spring color wherever you want it.

How to Plant, Cultivate, and Care for Tulips